Dr. Van Etten

Leading the way in cancer care

When the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center opens its second clinical hub in the summer of 2024, it will triple the space available to deliver the region’s most advanced care.

“This will be huge for patients,” predicted Richard Van Etten, MD, PhD, director of the cancer center and associate vice chancellor at the Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences. “It will expand access to the latest in cancer care, clinical trials and research, and bring it all closer to people living in coastal and southern Orange County.”

The existing Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center based in Orange County, already serves more cancer patients and offers more clinical trials, especially novel early-phase studies, than any other healthcare provider in the region.

About a third of its patients come from Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. A key reason is expertise.

“Cancer isn’t one disease, it’s about 150 different ones, and each is completely different in terms of its causes, detection and treatment,” Van Etten noted. “We have true experts in all types of cancer, which allows us to be absolutely the most up-to-date on the latest research and technologies.”

The ultimate in cancer care

The new center, called the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and Ambulatory Care building, will be part of UCI Health — Irvine, a $1.3 billion medical complex under construction at the northern edge of the UCI campus. “It will have everything,” he said after a visit to the construction site. “It will be the ultimate in state-of-the art cancer care on the West Coast.”

It will offer patient-centered radiation oncology therapies as well as the most advanced imaging services, all under one roof, plus 40 infusion stations, eight outpatient surgical suites and a state-of-the art women’s breast health center.

It will also ease a space crunch at the existing cancer center in Orange and its satellite clinical locations, where outpatient visits now exceed 80,000 a year and almost 65,000 cancer infusion treatments are performed annually.

‘True multidisciplinary care’

At least 30 new cancer specialists are being recruited for the Irvine center. When an adjacent 144-bed acute care hospital opens in 2025, patients who need hospitalization can be “seamlessly cared for in one location,” he said.

The new hospital and the adjacent Joe C. Wen & Family Center for Advanced Care, opening in spring 2024, will permit true multidisciplinary cancer care, giving patients ready access to other specialists in infectious disease, gastroenterology, cardiology, kidney disease, pulmonary medicine and other disciplines.

“Cancer patients can develop problems affecting nearly every organ system,” he explained. “UCI Health is uniquely positioned to treat the whole patient, including offering access to integrative medicine services at the nearby Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute.”

Equally important for the future of cancer care, he said, is its location on the UCI campus, which will foster even greater synergies between clinicians and the university’s basic scientists.

Fostering innovation

Many of the cancer center’s researchers are on the cusp of breakthroughs that could redefine diagnosis and treatment for many cancers. Neuroscientist Michael Demetriou, MD, PhD, for one, is working with the National Cancer Institute on a cancer-specific antigen that spares healthy cells.

“This has the potential to be a game changer because it targets only cancer cells and it may allow therapies like CAR T cells to be used against solid tumors for the first time,” Van Etten said.

Another scientist’s work promises to revolutionize cancer screening and perhaps radiotherapy. Physicist Christopher Barty, PhD, is working with the U.S. Department of Defense to build an X-ray machine that produces 100 times better images with less than 1/100th the amount of radiation. Lowering exposure to radiation means that procedures like mammograms and CT scans can be done more frequently.

“It completely changes the paradigm for diagnosing cancer, particularly where we lack effective screening methods, such as for pancreatic and ovarian cancers,” said Van Etten, who is eager to make use of the technology for research in the near future and eventually for clinical applications.

With over 400 active cancer clinical trials underway, including at least 140 early-phase trials and the latest in immunotherapies — more than any other provider in Orange County — the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center offers the newest treatments for patients who aren’t responding to standard therapies.

“Clinical trials,” he said, “are the only way we can move the ball forward and improve outcomes for patients with cancer.”